Putting An End To “Cub Petting”
An estimated 30,000 wild lions currently exist around the world, down from 75,000 just two decades ago. However, as wild lion populations continue to decline, captive breeding programs have risen in popularity. In fact, some experts claim that there are now more lions living in captivity than in the wild.
In South Africa, there are between 6,000 to 8,500 lions living in captive breeding farms. Many of these facilities sell their animals to canned hunting sites, the exotic companion animal trade, and the lion skeleton trade. Another popular use for captive lions is “cub petting,” where tourists pay for hands-on contact with lion cubs. Some cub petting sites brand themselves as “voluntourism,” where tourists believe they are supporting orphaned cubs in an ethical or sanctuary setting. However, regardless of how it’s framed, cub petting poses severe welfare threats to the animals involved.
In this study, researchers set out to identify the welfare harms associated with South Africa’s cub petting industry. Specifically, they explored the environmental conditions, animal care, and behavioral aspects of lion welfare in 49 YouTube videos of cub petting posted between 2008 and 2019.
In general, the authors identified at least two poor animal care practices in every video. For example:
- 98% of videos were filmed during the day. Forcing lions to interact with people during the day is especially problematic, as lions are nocturnal animals.
- The lion mother was not visible in 98% of videos. Under natural circumstances, lion mothers hide their cubs for the first few months of birth. In one of the videos, the cub was as young as one day old.
- In 96% of the videos, the cubs were estimated to be under seven months old. Cubs are typically weaned around seven months old, which further emphasizes the problems with separating them from their mothers for petting. For cubs over three months old, experts also say it is dangerous to allow direct interactions with humans.
- 49% of videos showed barren facilities. These facilities were small without any visible enrichment. However, studies have shown that captive lions prefer facilities that resemble their natural home environments.
- 12% of videos showed cubs isolated from other members of their species.
In addition to the above, 77% of cub petting videos revealed at least one lion stress behavior, including avoidance and / or aggression. 20% of videos showed evidence of repetitive behavior / stereotypies, which suggests that the lions in these settings are experiencing poor welfare.
Although 10 of the 49 videos appeared to show “voluntourism” attractions, these sites had just as many damaging animal care practices (and lion stress behaviors) as attractions that did not label themselves as voluntourism. The problem is, tourists who pay to visit a so-called “lion sanctuary” may not be equipped to recognize the welfare harms of these locations.
The authors point out other welfare implications for the lions involved in cub petting attractions. For example, when cubs are forcibly weaned from their mothers, they may be given alternative milk that can compromise their health and immune systems. The mother lions may also experience separation anxiety after having her cubs taken away. Finally, lions in the wild have strong social hierarchies that must be passed on from adults to juveniles. Research has found that exposing lion cubs to adults is integral to their healthy development, meaning that cubs placed in isolation will suffer.
The authors call for an end to cub petting, noting that it is incompatible with cub welfare regardless of any steps taken to improve the animal care practices of petting facilities. This study is also an important reminder that just because a wild animal tourist attraction markets itself as a “sanctuary” or as being animal-friendly, that doesn’t mean it actually is. In addition to pushing for a ban on cub petting and captive lion breeding in South Africa, advocates can petition the government to regulate the greenwashing of wild animal tourist attractions. It’s also important to educate tourists about the reality of cub petting and to encourage them to choose more humane ways of supporting lion populations in South Africa.